Sprint Picks Nokia for WiMax

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) has named Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) as the fourth major supplier for its planned nationwide WiMax network; once again picking a vendor that can cover both the infrastructure and device side of the house for this new wireless broadband technology.

Nokia will supply mobile WiMax infrastructure "to be built out in 2007" for launch in 2008, a Sprint spokesman tells Unstrung. Meanwhile, the Finnish vendor will go beyond its usual cellphone and smartphone portfolio for initial WiMax devices, providing Sprint with "multimedia computers and web tablets" to exploit the broadband capabilities of WiMax.

Sprint already has two similar deals with Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Samsung Corp. to supply networking equipment, devices, and marketing support for the new network; as well as a silicon deal with Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC). The Nokia deal means that Sprint has wrapped up three of the largest providers that can bring devices and network equipment to the table. The only big name that can do the same not yet on Sprint's WiMax list is Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), with its Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications joint venture.

Sprint says it will light up its initial WiMax markets late this year with a full rollout of the network beginning in 2008. Chicago and Washington, D.C. will be the first cities to get Sprint WiMax in 2007. (See How Is T1 Like a Pizza?) Sprint Nextel expects to invest up to $800 million in 2007 relating to the so-called "4G WiMax" mobile broadband network, and between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in 2008.

Other vendors are also desperate to get a piece of Sprint's WiMax action. Nortel Networks Ltd. told Unstrung in October that it was "cautiously optimistic" that it would be one of Sprint's suppliers. (See Nortel Takes WiMax MIMO.)

The Sprint spokesman says that the operator will be "leveraging existing CDMA suppliers," which includes Nortel, for its WiMax network.

What is clear, however, is that the operator is keen to focus on vendors that can also supply the device side of the equation. Many new mobile network launches are hamstrung by a lack of suitable devices for sale at the outset, and Sprint no doubt wants to exploit the faster data-transfer capabilities of WiMax over existing 3G networks.

This could mean that Nokia once again gets to push its multimedia tablet products. The company currently has a VOIP-capable webpad called the 770 that already has WiFi and Bluetooth onboard. (see Nokia Rx: Take a Tablet & Talk.) This could be a crucial element of its strategy, as Sprint now has competition in the mobile WiMax field in the U.S. Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) says it will deploy mobile broadband networks in new markets as soon as possible. Sprint's major advantage over the well-funded upstart could lie in getting the world's major device vendors intimately involved with its own WiMax efforts. (See Clearwire Takes Another Cut at IPO.)

On the infrastructure side, Nokia will supply Sprint with equipment, including the Flexi WiMax base transceiver stations, which the vendor claims "will bring significant site and operating cost savings" for the broadband deployments. Nokia’s Flexi BTS was identified as one of the most innovative base station product designs in the recent Unstrung Insider report "3G Base Station Design & Wireless Network Economics."

"With this win coming off the back of the T-Mobile announcement, it’s looking like this could be a huge hit for Nokia." notes report author and Unstrung Insider analyst Gabriel Brown.

With equipment now counting for less than half the typical cost of a cell site, there is increasing pressure on vendors to deliver product designs that minimize overall site costs.This means base station equipment products with modular designs -- sometimes called zero-footprint architectures -- that allow operators to save money on civil works, power, footprint, and backhaul, such as the Flexi BTS.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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